There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as though it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future...

-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"The book of nature, which we have to read is written by the finger of God" -- Michael Faraday

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Please note: The views expressed on this blog are mine unless noted, and do not reflect the views of my employer or church.

Using Cloud Computing to save money

I’ve been thinking about the most cost-effective way to play with new ideas, operating systems, and information technology.  In the past, I used Virtual Private Servers(VPS), and at times did use Dedicated Servers.  This blog at the time of this writing is hosted on a VPS.  I still use VPS systems for websites that have to stay running 24/7, what would be called “production” systems.

I’m amazed at what can be done with virtualization technology.  When I had a dedicated server, I would load a hypervisor such as Xen or KVM, and create virtual machines.  I could install a new operating system, play around, and then destroy it and do something else with the CPU, RAM, and disk space.  Some drawbacks to the public clouds I’ve seen is that the CPU core you get really isn’t much to get excited about, and the disk I/O can be slow at times.  But the concept of the cloud in my understanding is that if more CPU is needed, you create your application to scale to multiple servers, and spool up another one.  This way the application is theoretically able to use as many CPUs as needed, and the resources can be adjusted during peak/non-peak times.

With cloud computing, which I realize is a buzzword, it looks like I can experiment for much less money.  Rather than paying a substantial amount of money for a dedicated server, which mostly sits idle during the day, I can use cloud computing platforms to quickly provision servers, do what I need to do, and then get rid of them.

Once nice benefit I found with my MSDN subscription is that I get a good amount of cloud resources on Windows Azure.  This is a generous offer from Microsoft, and more than pays for the subscription.  I’m thinking Microsoft offers this to help programmers get a head start on developing applications in their cloud.  I wonder how many people take advantage of this benefit.  Because of it, I’m learning my way around Windows Server 2012.

For production applications, I can see how cloud computing would be in most cases more expensive than a VPS or dedicated.  I would think that if I have an application that really does well, dedicated hosting would be in order.  Until then, I can save the difference.

Back to Sprint

I never thought I would switch cell phone carriers, but with Clearwire working out so well, I decided to return the device and switch my cellphone to a Sprint Epic 4G.  This lets me use the same network as Clearwire but carry one device.   So far Sprint has been good.  The phone is not as sensitive as the Clearspot, but performance is adequate when I’m in a 4G area.

I got a credit union discount of 10 percent for going with a 69.99 plan with unlimited data included.  Not a bad deal, plus the company I bought from threw in some extra credits and acccessories.  I basically got the phone for free after all the credits and rebates.  Sprint seems to aggressively be seeking new customers and trying to get customers to switch from other carriers.

If you are looking for 4G, and Sprint is in your area, you may want to give them another look if you have tried them in the past.

4G WiMAX (Clearwire) in Hartford area

I suppose I can end the year with a service that has been a nice surprise.  I noticed Clearwire when I was at a mall in Lancaster, PA, a few years ago.  I noticed that they were trying to get people signed up for home/mobile service.  I decided to keep an eye on what they were doing, since the technology looked promising.  Recently, Clearwire installed some towers around where I live, in Hartford County Connecticut.  I decided to sign up and see what the service is about, especially since my wife has recently needed to make many trips to the hospital, and our lives are becoming much more mobile.

So far, the service has been about what is advertised.  In an area that has strong coverage, I get the 3-6mbps down and 1mbps up.  It does burst to 12mbps/sec at times, in fact, one download I did stayed around 12mpbs/sec.  Of course, I’m thinking there are probably very few users in my area at this time, so I’m sure the speeds will drop a little as more people subscribe to the service.

My house is not supposed to have coverage.  In general, this is true, but I did order the USB adapter performance dock, and this coupled with positioning in a window does provide me with a usable signal.  I only get about 1-2mpbs/sec down, and about 0.04 mpbs/sec up, which isn’t terrible great for uploading, but it does get the job done for surfing and downloading things.

Clear says they will be expanding in 2011.  I’m hoping they will add a few towers near my house so I can get the best speeds.  I may switch my home service to them, depending on how strong a signal I end up with at my residence.  For now, having fast mobile broadband on the go is very, very helpful.

IPv6 with FreeBSD

I’ve been getting many hits of late about U-verse and IPv6.  Not sure why that’s happening, but in any case, my comments on the subject would actually work with any ISP.  U-verse is just what I happened to have at the time.

Moving on, one of the datacenters I use, OLM.net, just turned on IPv6 not long ago.  The way that they chose to configure the network is by using router advertisements, so no default gateway setting is needed.  In FreeBSD, this is not turned on by default.  Here are some instructions for any network that uses router advertisement.

Add the following lines to /etc/rc.conf:

ipv6_enable=”YES”

ipv6_ifconfig_xx0=”<insert IPv6 address here”

(Note:  replace the “xx0″ with the interface name in ifconfig of the card on the network, such as rl0, re0, etc.)

Add the following line to /etc/sysctl.conf:

net.inet6.ip6.accept_rtadv=1

Lastly, I created a script in /usr/local/etc/rc.d/ipv6, where I put the following lines:

#!/bin/sh

/sbin/rtsol xx0

(again, where xx0 is the interface name in ifconfig of your network card)

I found that I had to reboot the server.  I had tried some things to figure things out, so maybe if you follow these instructions, you may not need a reboot to get things going.  At the very least, if you choose not to reboot, you will need to run the following scripts:

/etc/rc.d/network_ipv6 start

/usr/local/etc/rc.d/ipv6

I hope this helps someone that is struggling to figure out how to get the router advertisements on their network.  If your network supports DHCPv6, these instructions probably aren’t needed, but if you have to manually configure your IPv6 address, but use router advertisement for the gateway, this procedure should work.

Backup communications strategies for the family

In the article “Why You Need a ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ Phone” on CNN’s website, the author presents a case for having a separate communications device in an emergency.  While I think that the basic concept is a good idea, I think a separate cell phone is probably not the best thing.  In a disaster situation, where cell phones have been historically overloaded, another cell phone may not work.  I would that that at the very least, if you go this route, you would want to make sure the spare cell phone is on a separate network (for instance, if your primary phone is GSM, maybe get a CDMA or iDEN phone).

If voice isn’t needed as a backup, there are alternatives, which I’ve been blogging about in separate posts for a few years now.  Pagers are an old technology, but they are still around and work well.  Right now, I have a pager with American Messaging that uses Skytel’s 2-way network.  I can send and receive pages with my pager, and it has an email address.  So if a disaster happens, and phones don’t work, I can still email people messages with it.  I also am using old Blackberry technology with Velocita Wireless, which has been selling old Blackberries at very low prices, and service for $8/month.  Velocita uses Mobitex technology, American Messaging/Skytel uses ReFLEX technology.

The advantage to using these often-forgotten networks is that they are still viable, and are built for exchanging data in a very efficient manner.  These networks have been shown in a disaster to stay working while other networks get overloaded.  The success rate of these networks is that while they are “1G” and very slow (ReFLEX is max 6400 baud, Mobitex is 12.5KHz narrowband channels), they have been designed for low-speed data messaging between machines.  Currently these companies are trying to sell their services to smart grid applications and other machine to machine applications.   I hope they can get good business customers, as that will help fund the network to keep it running.  I suspect that when the customer base shrinks in an area, they just start shutting towers off.

The advantages of the ReFLEX coverage are a wider coverage pattern (at least where I live) than Mobitex.  I used to have alot of problems with two way pagers not being able to send, but Skytel has cleared that issue up where I live, and there are many places I can now send pages as well.  Coverage is decent at my house.  The advantages to the Mobitex network is you get an email address that can handle emails 4-8K in size (each).  The Skytel pager is only programmed for 500 characters maximum, making it great for short messages, but not routine emailing.   The Mobitex Blackberry can be used as a backup email account.  Mobitex has very spotty coverage where I live.  I would consider it “street-level” coverage, meaning that it doesn’t work in many buildings around my address, but this is to be expected, as I’m in a fringe area.  Usually if I take the Blackberry outside, I can get a signal.  Major cities have good Mobitex coverage, so it is worth considering if you are in a metro area.

I did not receive any compensation for this review.  I have been a happy customer of Velocita and American Messaging, and just wish to share my experiences on the blog.

My Life’s Status

I haven’t posted a blog in awhile, so I figured I should say something, in case I actually have people who are reading this blog.

I have been working oddball hours, alternating between 1st and 2nd shift for the last few weeks, which has disrupted my schedule.  Usually this means I have no time for theological reflection, or to pursue my hobbies.  I’m hoping things will be back to normal, but with my employer, just about anything is possible.

Here’s where I’m at with my current interests:

1)  Amateur Radio:  Progress continues to be made with my UROnode.  I’m now running on 2 meters and 70 centimeters, in addition to linking via the internet with the Kentucky Packet Network.  I had some issues hearing the flexnet network on 2 meters, but this was due to a beam antenna on the other end being pointed in the wrong direction.  Now that we are both using vertical antennas, the signals are much stronger, and I’ve reduced my output to 25 watts.  This system now bridges the two large packet networks in CT.  I’m starting to see some interest in packet radio from new people, which is encouraging.  This is what I was hoping for, drawing new people into using packet radio, especially for NTS message handling.  I still am interested in experimenting with TCP/IP, so if you are interested and you live in CT, drop me a line and let’s get set up.

2)  Paging:  I was trying out USA Mobility’s two-way service, and found the coverage in my area wasn’t as good as the two-way offered by American Messaging/Skytel.  However, I have found that USA Mobility’s regional frequency, 929.6125, is working much better than the 929.9375 national frequency from American Messaging.   One disappointing thing I found is that American Messaging’s one-way national frequency is not as predicted in Maine.  There were definitely coverage gaps that were not indicated on the map.   I suppose this is due to towers getting shut down.  That’s why I test these things.  I will be traveling again across the eastern coast this summer (from  Maine to Pennsylvania), so we will see how good the USA Mobility regional frequency is.  So far, using a scanner, it looks like it will meet my needs.

3)  Theology:  Haven’t had much time for reflection, study, or anything else.   My fundamental Baptist background sometimes gets me feeling guilty about not having regular “devotional” times, but I then remind myself that God gives us grace, and as humans we can only do so much.  As my schedule returns to normal, things should get better on this front.  I have jury duty coming up, and if I end up having to report to the court, I’ll be taking along some books I’ve been meaning to read.  Maybe I can post a report on them after.

Family Christian Devotions

I’ve been thinking recently with a heavy heart about how to pass on faith from myself to my children and family.  It seems  like a daunting task, but yet, it is the expectation that a Christian father lead his household in this matter.  Here are my thoughts on the subject, and how I’m going to begin.

First, I have had a difficult time trying to decide what to do.  Some materials seem a little much right now for my young children.  The books written for smaller children I really have a hard time using.  I feel like they aren’t getting much when I use them.

My plan is to create my own short devotional materials, which will include at least one Bible verse to think about, and a lesson either about a Bible passage, or a Christian classic, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, the Didache, etc.  I would hope to pass on some of the learning I acquired over the years to them.

I plan on incorporating other Christian classics in our devotional time, because church history is quite full of lessons throughout the centuries that should help shape our lives.  While I believe in Sola Scriptura and many of the principles and thoughts of the Reformation, I also believe that in the last few decades at least, Christians have lost some ground due to chasing after new things and forgetting history.  I want my children to have the benefit of seeing Christianity through a historical lens.

I originally wrote the above paragraphs in February 2010, but never did complete the post, as I’m a perfectionist and didn’t feel it was complete.  In the time since then, we have almost completed Little Pilgrim’s Progress reading a chapter every night we are able to.  Saturday and Sunday nights are hard, since we are usually tied up with other family and church things.

I can see how my children, even the youngest, are starting to piece together parts of the Christian life by comparing the allegory to what they are hearing us and the church teach.  It is having the effect I was hoping it would have, showing them that my wife and I take Christianity seriously, and allowing them to hear (albeit an adapted version for younger children) a classic book in Christian thought.

Now I have to start thinking in a few months about the next book I will use.   Maybe we can find a children’s devotional book.  Once they get a little older, maybe we can use the Apostles or Nicene creeds.  I’m getting interested in New Monasticism and find an abbreviated format of some of the sequences they follow may help.

New AX.25 packet radio station in CT

I’ve been trying to decide what to do with my Amateur radios and modems of late.  They had been collecting dust for far too long.  I decided what I would do is run a packet node/BBS/network system.  I think that I could help with providing connectivity in the north part of CT.

So here is the setup:

I have a server running CentOS 5.5 with RAID1 SATA disks for redundancy.  I’m running JNOS 2.0h.  I have a 50 watt commercial radio running on 145.01 MHz.   I do not have emergency/backup power except for a UPS.  We are on a pretty stable power grid that normally doesn’t go down much, or is back on before the UPS gives out.

The eventual purpose of the system will be to provide a bridge to the Internet and ways of sending emails in case a mobile station needs connectivity.

Right now, there is telnet capability into the CentOS server, which will allow a user to do most anything on the UNIX command line.  I’ll be expanding some of this so that email can be sent, or possibly other services can be provided.

While any amateur user can connect to the BBS via the call KD1ZD-4, the telnet access is restricted until you ask for it.  If you live in the Western MA/CT/NY area and can reach the W1SP nodes, you can connect to me from there.

If you have any ideas on how to make amateur packet radio more useful in the CT area, please send me a note at the email listed on this blog.

Updates may be posted here, but the main website for the packet system will be http://www.rtcubed.org/kd1zd

The current status of two way paging

So every now and again, I decide to use paging devices for my business and personal life.   Most people that had pagers ten years ago use cellular phones by now.  However, there are still paging companies that provide service.  The major players now are American Messaging and USA Mobility.

First, American Messaging:  They are my provider of choice, as they bought many of the former Bell Atlantic Mobile / Verizon paging networks.  Ten years ago, Bell Atlantic Mobile/Verizon had in my opinion the best coverage and most cohesive cellular and paging networks in New England, which is where I live.  If you are looking for alphanumeric (text) paging, their 929.9375 national frequency works very well around here.  They are now reselling the Skytel 2-way network on 940.2250.  I was trying this out, as I’m looking for a backup to text messaging.  The receive coverage vs. their coverage maps is pretty accurate, but sometimes a little spotty.  Their reverse channel is working pretty well at my house, which was not always the case about 8 years ago.  There must have been some improvements made to this in my area.

Lastly, USA Mobility:  I am trying their two way service out, on frequency 940.8625.  So far, the receive coverage is good, but the transmit coverage is not so good.  I am not quite in the two-way coverage map, so this is understandable.  I’m using a reseller of theirs for my trial, mysecretaryusa.com.  They provide very low cost plans and pagers.

Why paging?  I can see more people just using text messaging and SMS, which in most cases will work fine.  One of the advantages of paging is that their networks have been proven to not suffer overload during a disaster.  Part of this is probably due to less users, but it is also because the system is optimized for short messages and efficiency.

In short, I’d recommend two way paging as a backup for your cell phone, especially if you want a technology separate from cell phones to communicate if the networks get overloaded.  I would suggest trying both companies, as I’ve noticed along the East Coast, American Messaging/Skytel would have a little more coverage, and some places in the Midwest/West USA Mobility may have better coverage.

As far as equipment, I’d recommend the M90 by Unication if it is available for your network.  This device has a Lithium ion  rechargeable battery, which is good because it will provide consistent power for the transmitter.  The older T900s use an internal NiCD charged by a AA cell.  The advantage to the T900s or the Unication equivalent is that in a disaster situation, you could just pop another AA battery in when the power gets low.   In both cases, many times walking outside with the pager will make it possible to send a message.  The ability to send a message is very difficult indoors, unless you are very close to the receivers, which I believe are located close to major cities.

Will paging still be around for much longer?  I don’t think there is an easy question, but seeing the advertising that the paging companies are doing with long range coasters for restaurants that use their frequencies, I have a feeling they will be around awhile.  I noticed Skytel is trying to market their two way services for meter reading and telemetry.  I think as long as they can hang on to their business customers, two way ReFLEX networks will be around.

More IPv6 things I’m doing

I currently have two VPS systems that I’m using to test out IPv6 connectivity.  One of them is with arpnetworks, and the other is with nerios.  More companies I’ve noticed are offering native IPv6 connectivity, and assigning /64 or /48 blocks to users.

Incidentally, I’d like to recommend arpnetworks as a provider of FreeBSD and OpenBSD VPS systems.  I’ve found that they have the fastest virtualization for BSD of any of the providers that I’ve used so far.  Their specialty is BSD virtual servers, so this is a niche hosting company that delivers a quality service for the money paid.

I’ve been using IPv6 for connecting to IRC servers, and do run some webservers.  There will probably be more to do as more people start connecting with it.  So far there aren’t any providers in the area that are offering Internet access with v6, so for now I use the 192.88.99.1 anycast method to connect.